A bid to extend lifetime benefits to outgoing Region of Waterloo councillors seems destined to have a short lifespan of its own.
Coun. Michael Harris says he plans to push for council to reverse last week’s decision that provides current benefits – life insurance, health, dental and out of province expenses – to elected officials who’ve served at least four years. The coverage would kick in at age 55.
On his Twitter feed, Harris said “voting for this was a mistake and the motion should have failed,” indicating he’d be issuing a notice of motion to rescind the plan. Wellesley Mayor Joe Nowak said he would second the motion.
Harris and Nowak are the two returning members of regional council who voted in favour of the plan November 8. Both have since changed their stances.
“The motion that Mike’s putting forward is very straightforward. There are no ifs, buts, ands or whereas about it. It’s just ‘let’s cancel this report and move forward,’ basically,” said Nowak in an interview this week.
“The process has always been to have a citizen-type committee coming back to council with some sort of a recommendation with regard to benefits and remuneration. We haven’t done that.”
The plan would see taxpayers continue to foot the bill – currently $2,400 per year for a single person up to $6,720 for a family plan – for the lifetime of departing councillors.
News of the last-minute decision – the topic wasn’t part of the original agenda for the November 8 meeting, but added to a later revision – prompted a public backlash. The parting gift for councillors passed 9-7, with most of the support coming from outgoing members of council. Returning members such as Chair Karen Redman and Woolwich Mayor Sandy Shantz voted against the plan.
“The process, it wasn’t really handled in terms of how we normally would do things for remuneration of councils,” said Shantz of voting against the plan, noting the lack of public input.
“I’m not sure if my decision would be different, but I would think about it differently had a citizens’ committee come back to us and said ‘we think you guys should provide this for retiring councillors.’ It would have been a whole different perspective.”
Despite bypassing the usual public process, the majority of councillors nonetheless voted for the extension of benefits, offering up a range of justifications.
Sean Strickland, a departing regional councillor representing Waterloo, led the charge, noting that other municipalities have similar arrangements and pointing to the options for provincial and federal politicians.
“This isn’t something that’s outside of the norm when it comes to elected officials, the continuation of benefits,” he said at the November 8 meeting.
Strickland argued the lame-duck provisions that prevents the outgoing council from making spending decisions over $50,000 appear to be something of a grey area in this instance.
He also cited pay raises nearby Guelph councillors gave themselves as a mitigating factor.
“I’d also like to point out when we’re doing this kind of environmental scan that our colleagues in Guelph just recently voted themselves a 25 per cent pay increase. That’s not something that we’re considering. We’re considering putting something into place to look after the health and welfare of our fellow councillors past their service time, past the age of 55.”
Outgoing Cambridge Mayor Kathryn McGarry stressed the demands put on public officials, noting she’s paid much less than the municipal staffers with whom she works.
“I think it’s time that we properly remunerate our politicians, that we give them some dignity at the end of their career and look to what they’ve given up in order to step forward to do a life of public service,” she argued in support of the benefits plan.
While acknowledging the plan would be boon for herself and other councillors, North Dumfries Mayor Sue Foxton said it would be hard to justify the taxpayer expense.
“How many [people] get benefits for life? How do I justify it for me when I can’t justify it for the public?” she asked her colleagues before ultimately voting against it.
Harris’ motion to reconsider could be presented as early as November 23, the inaugural session of the new council.
“That’ll hopefully be the end of that discussion for a while, anyway,” said Nowak. “The new council may want to look into it with a citizens’ committee – I don’t know whether that’ll happen, but it might be a wise idea at some point. It doesn’t have to be right away, but at some point.
Shantz had much the same sentiment.
“I would like to see the whole idea of council compensation go to the citizens’ committee, as it should, then come back to council and then address it.”